In Memoriam: Native American Law Pioneer Rennard Strickland ’65 S.J.D. ’71

Rennard Strickland

Rennard Strickland ’65 S.J.D. ’71 dedicated his career to Native American rights and legal history. Courtesy University of Oklahoma College of Law

January 12, 2021

Rennard Strickland, a pioneer in the movement for Native rights and a legal historian who received two law degrees from the University of Virginia School of Law, died Jan. 5 at the age of 80.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Strickland was of Osage and Cherokee heritage. In a career that spanned teaching and leading numerous law schools, he served as dean of four: the University of Tulsa, Southern Illinois University, Oklahoma City University and the University of Oregon. He was most recently senior scholar in residence at the University of Oklahoma Law Center, where he helped introduce Indian Law into the University’s legal curriculum. The author, editor or co-editor of 47 books and 208 essays, book chapters and articles, he was frequently cited by courts and scholars for his work as revision editor-in-chief of “Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law,” considered the authoritative text on the subject.

As a student at UVA Law, he earned his LL.B. in 1965 and S.J.D. in 1971.

“Rennard — a legal historian, institutional leader, teacher and arts patron — was himself a historic figure in the movement for the recognition of Native rights, a movement that informed virtually his entire professional life,” said Professor Lindsay G. Robertson ’86, the Chickasaw Nation Endowed Chair in Native American Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Robertson succeeded Strickland in his founding role as faculty director of the Center for the Study of American Indian Law and Policy at the school.

According to his obituary, Strickland made his mark with many firsts. He was the only person to have been a tenured professor of law at all three of Oklahoma’s ABA-approved law schools. He was the first and only person to have served as both the president of the Association of American Law Schools and as the chair of the Law School Admissions Council. He was also the only person to have been honored by both the Society of American Law Teachers with their annual teaching award and the American Bar Association’s “Spirit of Excellence” Award.

In 1997, he was elected to the American Law Institute. In 2012, he received the Robert Kutakes’ Award, presented by the American Bar Association in recognition of his substantial contributions to legal education and the active practice of law. In 1992, he was appointed chair of the Osage Constitutional Commission by U.S. Judge James O. Ellison of the Northern District of Oklahoma.

Strickland had been involved in the resolution of a number of significant Indian cases, including testifying on behalf of the Muskogee Nation and against the State of Oklahoma in the case that established the rights of American Indian tribes to engage in gaming.

At UVA, Strickland competed in the Jessup International Moot Court finals with his classmate Joseph Fleming ’65, with the pair finishing second in the final round. Strickland was named “Best Oralist” and Virginia’s team captured the award for best brief. His moot court career came on the heels of a prolific debating career in high school, and in college at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. He also held an M.A. from the University of Arkansas and honorary doctorates from Valparaiso University, Northeastern State University and Bacone College.

Strickland was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in 1980, at Florida University Law School in 1983 and at Syracuse University Law School in 2001. He resigned the deanship at Southern Illinois Law School when he accepted an appointment at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1988-89, before going to the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

In 2012, Rennard was inducted into the Oklahoma Historian’s Hall of Fame, and in 2015 he was presented with the Gibson Award for Life Achievement by the Oklahoma Center for the Book with special citation for his three books that have remained in print for more than 50 years — “Sam Houston with the Cherokees: 1829-1833,” “Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court” and “The Indians in Oklahoma.” “Fire and the Spirits” began as his S.J.D. dissertation under the guidance of UVA Law professor Walter Wadlington. (Wadlington retired in 2002, and died in 2019.)

At the end of his final year in law school, Strickland told the University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Magazine that his favorite professor said he should go into legal education to change the way it was taught.

“Legal education has changed since then,” Strickland said in the interview. When he began teaching law, “women and minorities were told to write about ‘mainstream law,’ not about minorities or women or even social and cultural issues. That non-traditional scholarship, we were told, was for ‘after tenure.’ I decided I didn’t care to have my academic menu selected by others.”

He served several terms on the ABA Council of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar, and on the Board of Oklahoma Indian Legal Services. He served one term on the board of the Society of American Law Teachers.

In 2004, Strickland spoke at UVA Law on the Native American struggle, an event sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Law and the Student Legal Forum. He said the Indians’ struggle for survival is too often considered a series of guerilla conflicts, rather than being placed in a larger context of intellectual, legal and cultural battles.

“We dismiss nonmilitary conflict. We ignore the battles of the book,” he said, referring to a Native American myth in which Indians at the beginning of time were allowed to choose between a book and a bow as their weapon of choice. As the story goes, they chose the bow, while whites chose the book.

“In order to fully understand the [500-year] war, the campaigns and the weapons must be viewed from the perspective of the combatants themselves,” he said.

Strickland also was a philanthropist in the arts. He gave his “Shared Visions” art collection to the Heard Museum in Phoenix; his “Spirit Red Collection” to the Fred Jones, Jr. Art Museum at the University of Oklahoma; and his “Law and Popular Culture” collection to the University of Oklahoma Law Center. In 2016, the Scottsdale museum of the West and the Arizona State University Foundation acquired more than 5,000 motion picture posters and lobby cards from Strickland, and his “Golden West” collection became the center of their joint venture.

Compiled from reports

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